Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

Jan Culik Č U L Í K ' S   C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
President Albright?

Jan Čulík

About a fortnight ago, the American news magazine Time had a slack week, and so it informed its readers, prior to Madeleine Albright's visit to the Czech Republic, that US Secretary of State was allegedly thinking of running for the Czech presidency in 2002, once Václav Havel's current term expires.

Albright on the Czech presidential flagThe non-story spread around the world with tremendous speed, despite the fact that Albright's spokesperson James Rubin refused to comment on the matter and that Albright soon denied any intention of standing as Czech President.

The story highlights two interesting misunderstandings.

First, it shows how little the Western media understand what is going on in the post-Communist countries of Europe such as the Czech Republic, and how little they know about Central and East European public opinion and current attitudes toward the West.

Second, it demonstrates how the Czech intellectual élites, especially those centred around Havel, seem to be basically cut off from what "normal," ordinary people in their country think.

When the news of Madeleine Albright's alleged candidature for the post of Czech President was released on 28 February, I quoted it in the Czech-language Internet daily Britské listy, asking the Czech public for comment. Just about one letter arrived, expressing the view that the news was so ludicrous that it did not deserve any space to be devoted to it at all.

Élite enthusiasm

And yet people such as President Václav Havel, his former political advisor Jiří Pehe and the former Czech Ambassador to the US Michael Žantovský seem to have been taken with the idea.

According to reports, Havel first thought of the idea that Madeleine Albright might become Czech President back in 1998, on the way back from a trip to the United States. "It occurred to me in the plane on my way home," he said, "so I had not had the opportunity to ask her."

After the news of Albright's alleged candidature emerged last month, Žantovský expressed the opinion that "Albright could one day play a great role in Czech politics."

Jiří Pehe has said that "Albright would be the best candidate for the post."

The Czech left-wing daily Právo published an article by sociologist Jan Keller last week, taking both Pehe and Žantovský seriously to task for their statements in this matter:

The immediate reactions [of commentators] to the [Albright for president] rumour should certainly not be forgotten. They tell us much about the state of the Czech political élites.

As was to be expected, Senator Michael Žantovský has absolutely failed in the test of political literacy. Only one thing was missing in his enthusiastic reaction: he forgot to assure the public that once Madeleine Albright assumed the presidency of this country, everybody would again have full fridges and freezers.

Political scientist Jiří Pehe also failed totally. In what Pehe has said there is not a sign of doubt, not even an attempt at analysis, no attempt to have a look at a very controversial proposal from more angles. [His statement on the matter] was simply an explosion of sincere enthusiasm, like when a boy gets his first train set for Christmas.

On the other hand, is difficult to agree with the supporters of Václav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ODS), who wish to see Klaus becoming a President after Havel stands down, when they make comments like the one by Jan
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Zahradil, the ODS's foreign affairs spokesperson. Zahradil said that Albright could never become Czech President since she has not lived in Czechoslovakia for decades and has "no affiliation to any Czech political parties."

One would think that having "no affiliation to any Czech political parties" was a rather good qualification for a presidential candidate, since the Czech President is supposed to stand above politics. But since Klaus's Civic Democratic Party seems to believe that all public life (and the media) should be controlled by political parties as much as possible, Zahradil's comments are perhaps understandable.

Havel's anchoring efforts

In a well-meaning, but sometimes rather clumsy and naive manner, President Václav Havel has always tried to drag the Czech Republic toward becoming "an integral part of the West," sometimes slightly against its will.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Havel strongly supported the moving of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the American radio stations broadcasting to Eastern Europe, from Munich, Germany, where they were becoming too expensive for the Americans to run, to Prague. Havel seemed to sincerely believe that once these stations had been moved to Prague, this would protect Czechoslovakia from possible aggression from the East, since by locating these stations in Prague, the Czech Republic would become a "part of the West," and the West would defend it as such.

Similarly, Havel has almost singlehandedly brought about the integration of the Czech Republic into NATO, and he seems genuinely to believe that Czech membership of NATO is now a reliable guarantee of Czech independence. The defence position of the Czech Republic is maybe better now as a member of NATO, but it remains to be seen whether the West will really protect the country at a time of serious future crisis. Will American soldiers be really willing to die for the cause of Czech independence?

Now, in a similar manner, Havel obviously believes that if Madeleine Albright became Czech President, such a major, well-known political figure would allow the Czech Republic "to punch above its weight" on the international political scene. He may well be right in this respect, but he seems to be overlooking one rather important fact: Albright is unacceptable to most Czechs at home.

But perhaps Havel knows Albright would be unacceptable to his fellow Czechs and simply hopes he might be able to persuade the Czechs to accept her the same way they accepted NATO, ie only after Havel dragged the Czech nation nearly kicking and screaming into the Alliance.

The support in the Czech Republic for joining NATO was hardly ever more than 50 per cent, and since a couple of weeks after joining NATO last year, NATO started bombing Serbia, many Czechs became quite seriously disaffected with the Alliance. Support for the NATO bombing of Serbia ran at some 30 per cent in the Czech Republic in spite of the fact that most of the media supported the campaign unquestioningly.

Madeleine Albright can thus be seen as Havel's new NATO; the people may not want her, but Havel may push her on them anyway.

Fear of the foreign

Is it really so utterly unrealistic for Madeleine Albright to become the next Czech President then?

The Czech Republic has a rather ambiguous attitude towards the West. In a way which is implicitly nationalistic (even though the Czechs do not like to admit to their nationalism), Czechs are rather defensive about the political and economic culture which has arisen in their country over the past ten years of post-Communism and indirectly also as the result of previous twenty years of Communism.

Many Czechs personally detest and abhor the atmosphere of corruption, manipulation, cronyism and the inefficient and arrogant bureaucracy that seems to rule today in Prague, but they would not necessarily wish to admit this to a foreigner.

When a new Chief Executive for Czech (public service) Television was being selected a few weeks ago, one of the shortlisted candidates had spent some time working abroad. I received a telling comment from an inside observer of the Czech political scene: "This candidate has no chance. No one who has lived and worked abroad can make it to a top position in the Czech Republic. Having lived and worked abroad is a serious handicap."

While the comment may be a little exaggerated - you will probably find a few exceptions to the rule in Prague - there is much truth in it.

It used to be said shortly after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia that if a Czech émigrés returned from the West looking for a job in the existing economic structures or in the civil service, he or she was due to fail badly. His or her new "Western" ways of approaching problems would irritate the local people, who would see the arrival of the émigrés as threatening competition.

Czechs like hearing stories about how one of their own has "made it in the world," but at the same time, when this happens, they usually do not like to accept these "internationally successful people" back into their own environment.

Film director Miloš Forman no longer makes films in the Czech Republic. Writer Milan Kundera hardly goes to Prague, and he is not even included in the official directory of Czech Writers published by the Czech Culture Ministry for international book fairs. Martina Navratilová or Ivana Trump do not choose to live in Prague.

If, on the other hand, a Czech arrived in his native country from the West and set up a private business, he or she was usually due to be successful: his or her knowledge of Western entrepreneurial techniques would mean that local people could neither compete with him nor put spanners in the work for him.

To a large degree, the distrust of indigenous Czechs towards their fellow citizens who have spent some time in the West survives unabated and is one of the key reasons why Madeleine Albright would be unacceptable as Czech President.

Madeleine Albright would also not be welcomed in Czech politics, because she would be regarded as too dangerous a competitor for the conspiracy of the squabbling, mediocre, local politicians.

And for the ordinary citizens of the Czech Republic, Madeleine Albright is unacceptable for an additional reason.

Most Czech citizens are now rather frustrated with politics. On the Czech political scene, the two largest parties, the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats, have in effect, concluded a coalition agreement and are changing the Constitution toward a majority voting system, which, in the view of cynics, will be designed to keep these two parties in power for ever after, at the expense of any fresh or dissenting voices.

Thus, ordinary Czech citizens now primarily feel disappointment about what is happening to democracy in their country. Their frustration over the barrenness of current Czech politics, coupled with their fear of unemployment has led many Czechs to lend their support to the reconstructed Communist Party, which has recently been the second most popular party in the country with double figure support.

In such an atmosphere, it is highly unlikely that a politician from the United States - whose superpower pressure on the Czech Republic is beginning to be resented in some quarters - could be adopted by the Czechs as their own.

Lopsided superpower pressure

As a final note, it would appear that one of the main purposes of Madeleine Albright's recent visit to the Czech Republic was to prevent the Czechs from exporting ventilation equipment to a nuclear power station in Iran. Under the pressure of the Americans, the Czech Parliament has just adopted a "state of legislative emergency" and has passed a law banning all such exports to Iran.

While some MPs (especially the Communists) pointed out in Parliament that the constitutional conditions for introducing "a state of legislative emergency" had not been fulfilled and that Parliament was over-reacting, the MPs from the ruling Social Democratic and Civic Democratic parties more or less admitted that it would be counterproductive to defy the demands of the Americans in this respect.

Oddly, the Czech export package to Iran was banned by the Czech Parliament just at the time when German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was visiting Iran and was praised in the German media for successfully negotiating new business contracts with that country, thereby trying to help the new Iranian democracy".

Obviously, Madeleine Albright does not visit Germany as often as the Czech Republic.

Jan Čulík, 12 March 2000

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.

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